This wasn’t the titanic title tussle that we were promised. Manchester City are too strong for any of that nonsense, as Arsenal found to their cost.
1) It felt as though we’d been waiting a long time for this, didn’t it? And in a sense, we definitely had. Arsenal and Manchester City have been in first and second place in the Premier League for 256 days, cemented in those top two spots since the second weekend of the season. We’ve had plenty of time to look up the fixtures, with the wait all the more prolonged by the first being put back four months so that Arsenal could complete their Europa League fixtures.
2) And while you don’t want to go anywhere near ‘Master vs Apprentice’ analogies, sometimes they just present themselves in too obvious a way to ignore. Mikel Arteta had five-and-a-half years with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, and it often felt throughout this match as though this was being represented on the pitch. Arsenal have the youngest squad in the Premier League this season, at an average age of 24.4 years of age. Manchester City’s is 26.7, and it showed. City were too strong, too hard-pressing, too precise with their passing, and too clinical with their finishing. Put simply, they were too strong in every department.
3) It has felt over the last few weeks as though Manchester City have been playing like they have a point to prove. There was a period this season in which they won only seven and lost four games from 12. Pretty much everything they’ve done since being charged by the Premier League with multiple counts of breaking financial fair play rules in the first week of February has felt like a raised middle finger to the entire rest of football. Interpret that as you wish. It’s likely that the supporters of two – perhaps three – Premier League clubs will take one view, while the rest might take a very different one indeed.
4) There remain few more enjoyable players to watch in the world than Kevin De Bruyne when he’s on his game, and my God he has been on his game this season. There is a pared-down simplicity about his football which flourishes because his peripheral vision is so extraordinary, his decision-making is imaginative and his use of the ball – whether running with it, passing or shooting – is so finely-tuned that he can play the game as though through a series of optical illusions. Now you see him, now you don’t.
It took just seven minutes for him to chase onto an exquisite Erling Haaland flick and bend a 25 yard daisy-cutter past Aaron Ramsdale. Eight minutes into the second half, with the Arsenal defence having apparently decided that the 53rd minute of the most important game of their season was an appropriate moment to take a tea break or something, he side-footed the ball through Rob Holding’s legs, wide of Ramsdale, and in. He was replaced by Julian Alvarez with ten minutes to play, his evening’s work well and truly done.
5) Even by the time that the first goal went in it was already very clear that this was going to be a very difficult evening for Arsenal, who looked nervy when they were in possession and misshapen when they weren’t. When De Bruyne ran through for the first goal he looked like Belgian Moses, the red defences parting before him and giving him an amount of space to assess his options that you simply cannot give a player of that calibre. This turned out to be a recurring theme of the evening.
6) It was a pleasurable evening for the elaborately-sculpted Goal-a-Tron Erling Haaland. It took him a long time to score, but with four and half minutes of stoppage-time played, he tapped in a straightforward finish from a Phil Foden pass. Of course he did. It’s what he’s programmed to do. But it should be added that “HE’S ABOUT MORE THAN THAT”, even though he only had five assists this season ahead of this game and it is pretty much generally accepted that, most of the time, if he’s not scoring goals then he’s not really doing anything.
But perhaps this particular match was also about those moments when he does do something else rather than the icing that he piped onto City’s cake in the dying seconds. He provided two assists on this occasion, both for De Bruyne. He evaded the unwanted attention of Thomas Partey and Ben White. He even let his hair down late in in the game, as though auditioning for a Timotei commercial. He’s also now scored 49 goals for Manchester City this season.
7) It’s not all about the goalscorers, except when it is. John Stones is probably the least glamorous player in this team of all talents (although Phil Foden’s Spider-Senses may be tingling at that having been typed), but he has massively improved this season. He chipped in with the second goal, a perfect header from a free-kick scored in first-half stoppage-time. Even the timing of it was perfect. Arsenal might have gone in at half-time thinking that they were still very much in the game at 1-0, but Stones’ header eliminated any thought of that.
8) Manchester City have adapted their style to fit Haaland, and have become more direct in doing so. Sure enough, they’ll exert pressure like a vice from the very first second, but the slow steady rhythms of Guardiola’s earlier teams has been superceded by something a little more rapier-like. Their three goals in this game came from a long ball, a set-piece and a break down the middle, and all three were perfectly executed. So long as it is perfectly executed, sometimes it’s best to just keep things simple.
9) And when you’re keeping things simple, it helps when the opposition is almost inviting you to do so. Huge gaps appeared between the Arsenal defence and midfield at points throughout the entire game, and this was fertile territory into which De Bruyne and Haaland could move. The first goal came about in this respect, and even though it was a set-piece which really put the result beyond reasonable doubt this was largely through to City’s relative profligacy with their finishing throughout first half.
10) Rob Holding versus Erling Haaland was a total mismatch. Haaland was too strong and too quick-witted for him, but at least he took something from the evening by scoring with five minutes to play. By this point in the evening, it was too late for Arsenal to really get into ‘right lads, we’ve got one, only two more required!’ territory, but it was some consolation to take from an otherwise extremely disappointing evening.
11.)The game became tetchy in the second half, with the players coming together for a minute or two of push and shove before the referee interjected on more than one occasion. They even managed it after the full-time whistle. Thomas Partey in particular was fortunate to escape a second yellow card late on in the game for attaching himself to Haaland like a limpet.
12) Credit where it’s due, Arsenal did improve as the match progressed and Mikel Arteta’s substitutions did make a difference. Jorginho was introduced on the hour – it rather felt as though he was the sort of steadying, experienced head that they could have done with on the pitch all evening – and he plugged the biggest gaps in the midfield, while the late introduction of Leandro Trossard gave them a little more punch when they did get into attacking positions. It was his run which led to the ball breaking for Holding for their goal.
13) But this is a gossamer-thin layer of consolation for Mikel Arteta at the end of what for him will have been a very disappointing evening. To lose a match this pivotal would obviously be disappointing under any circumstances, but to do so without really ever threatening to win it really sums up the difference between the trajectories of Arsenal and Manchester City. This certainly wasn’t the titanic struggle that might have been expected from such a game. Arsenal’s defence had been shaky for the previous three games, and it had been six since they last kept a clean sheet. The midfield – or at least the ‘defensive’ part of it – felt practically non-existent, and the attackers were either uninvolved or ineffectual. Bukayo Saka, for example, has been one of the very best players in the Premier League this season, but he was anonymous on this occasion and was withdrawn after 81 minutes.
14) Football culture’s insistence on using unnecessarily pejorative language will probably ensure that this is the evening which at least in part becomes remembered as The Night That Arsenal Choked in the courts of Banterbury Cathedral, but to do so would be more than a little unfair. It’s true enough to say that losing a nine-point lead shouldn’t be brushed under the carpet, but before we start throwing the word “choke” around there, we should really consider the gulf in playing resources between the two clubs. They’re being overhauled by a steamroller with rocket engines attached.
To illustrate this, the Manchester City substitutes bench this evening was made up of Kalvin Phillips, Aymeric Laporte, Stefan Ortega, Julian Alvarez, Sergio Gomez, Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, Cole Palmer and Rico Lewis, while Arsenal’s was Kieran Tierney, Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah, Jakub Kiwior, Leandro Trossard, Jorginho, Fabio Vieira, Reiss Nelson and Matt Turner. The lack of depth in Arsenal’s first-team squad should be near the top of their priority come the end of the season. And Arsenal absolutely must not forget how far they’ve come. Regardless of what happens between now and the end of May, this edition has been the best team they’ve had in years.
Mikel Arteta’s most important job now is to get back to winning ways. This isn’t even about winning the Premier League. That ship may have sailed. It’s about getting back the momentum that got them through the first three-quarters of the season. If he can manage that, then this team certainly won’t be regarded by future historians as one-season wonders, and even if the judgement of those guys doesn’t matter, carrying over momentum from one season to the next is highly beneficial.
15) The biggest irony of this entire evening is that the actual Premier League table hasn’t seen any change in league positions. Arsenal are still top of the table, and Manchester City are in second place, and optimistic Arsenal supporters may yet hold out hope that a two-legged Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid could prove a distraction. But if City have been an object in Arsenal’s rear-view mirror that has been closer than it appeared for a few weeks, with it ending with them two points behind and with two games in hand, this was the night upon which they could really start to feel the breath on the back of their necks.
16) And while it’s definitely not over, as evinced by Mikel Arteta’s somewhat defiant post-match interview, most outsiders will probably agree that it is. Winning it this time around will make it five titles out of six for Manchester City, with the prospect of yet more strengthening during the summer. But while the Premier League might be forgiven a furrowed brow at such domination, finding a way of ending it without ending up in court yet again might prove to be something in a challenge.
Manchester City have evolved this season into a team that is almost too good. Arsenal still have evolution to do, but despite the setbacks of the last couple of weeks, they remain ahead of schedule. Unfortunately for them, that now seems vanishingly unlikely to be enough for them, this time around.